Santiago de Compostela

João Onofre

Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea

One hears a noise of unknown origin and, after a few disturbing moments, sees a vulture burst into a room. The surprise is terrible—and it is no trick. What was going through Portuguese artist João Onofre’s head when he decided to bring about such a situation, recorded in his video Untitled (Vulture in the Studio), 2002? In an unfamiliar environment, the wild animal climbs onto the tables mounted on easels that enclose the studio space, nibbling on the sheets of paper pinned to the wall as well as the books and catalogues arranged on shelves, and tries to take flight—a short, frustrated flight, given the limited space.

According to Onofre, he had no idea what the bird would do. This search for the unforeseeable is a constant in his work—of which we got a good sample in this exhibition of seven video projections. Three take place in Onofre’s Lisbon studio: Untitled (Vulture in the Studio), Believe (Levitation in the Studio), 2002, and Catriona Shaw Sings Baldessari Sings LeWitt Re-edit Like a Virgin Extended Version, 2003. But there are few formal differences between these three and the others, like Casting, 2000, Instrumental Version, 2001, and Pas d’action, 2002, shot in other spaces. Typically they gather together a group of individuals whose function is to represent, interpret, pretend, or act. In Casting, a group of young male and female models recite in Italian a line from Roberto Rossellini’s film Stromboli (1950)—the transcendent and desperate moment in which Ingrid Bergman speaks the words: “Che io abbia la forza, la convinzione, ed il coraggio” (May I have the strength, conviction, and courage). Paradoxically, some of the models reciting this phrase seem precisely to lack strength, conviction, and courage. In Catriona Shaw, a passable vocalist interprets Madonna’s famous song “Like a Virgin,” but with altered lyrics: excerpts from Sol LeWitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (1969)—which had already been sung by John Baldessari in 1978. This double appropriation, a constant in postmodern aesthetics, seems to harbor an ulterior intention, that of infusing mass culture with the sophisticated and cryptic ethos of Conceptual art. Has Onofre succeeded? It is true that at least since Dalí and Warhol the division between high and popular culture seems to have disappeared, but still the public that frequents contemporary-art centers is not the same one that attends the concerts of yesterday’s sex muse turned exemplary mother.

The only video set outdoors was Nothing Will Go Wrong, 2000, which gave the exhibition its title. In a nondescript plaza, a gymnast climbs up a traffic light to do a handstand. When the action takes place, as if by magic, all background noise ceases only to return again once he climbs down. Why? Does this act, inappropriate or unusual to what normally occurs in a city, detain the noise as if we were in another space or time? Is it a simple, absurd blink? There is no clear answer. It is just another of the many enigmas in a hermetic and at the same time very visual oeuvre that may offer the spectator some clues but in which the real master of ceremonies is he who never appears on the scene—the artist.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from Spanish by Michèle Faguet.